The importance of religion stories

whitehousedinner johnrobertsEven though I’m a reporter, I only recently began reading bylines as part of my newspaper experience.

I can credit Robin Givhan for that. She’s a staff writer for the Style section of the Washington Post. I was so aghast at reading a piece of hers years ago that I actually started noticing her byline. She said that Katherine Harris couldn’t be trusted to deal with the 2000 election mess in Florida because of something about the way she applied her mascara. What was this, 1952? High-achieving women are judged not for their degrees from Harvard or being elected to a statewide office but for their makeup?

Of course, it’s not hard to criticize fashion in Washington, where the women look like they’re in an Ann Taylor cult and the men wear Dockers and pennyloafers to work out at the gym.

I love fashion criticism, it’s just that rather than treating good fashion as its own virtue, Givhan extrapolates opinions about aesthetics into moral judgments. Beauty becomes equivalent to political virtue, ugliness to political vice, and Givhan writes it up in a manner that is extremely one-sided. She ridiculed John Roberts’ family for looking too perfect, referred to Condoleezza Rice as a dominatrix and said Dick Cheney dressed horribly for a blizzard.

So when someone said that Givhan won a Pulitzer yesterday, I laughed. I saw a few other references to a Givhan Pulitzer and figured there must have been some joke on Wonkette that people were referencing. A full seven hours later I checked out the official list and saw that Givhan’s name was on it. I turned to my fiance, who fortunately had some smelling salts on hand. When I came to, he explained to me in soothing tones that it was true.

But the Pulitzer committee has made mistakes before. It’s still a prestigious award, even if its biases are pretty obvious.

It got me wondering, though, about the Godbeat. How well are religion reporters represented among the 2006 winners? I had hoped that Stephanie Simon might win for her excellent coverage of religious and moral issues for the Los Angeles Times. Alas, no. I imagine New Orleans’ Times-Picayune and Biloxi-Gulfport’s Sun Herald had some good religion reporting in their Katrina coverage, for which they won awards.

Here’s the full list of awards. Some were given to reporters for stories that have religion ghosts — such as the Jack Abramoff scandal or stories related to counterterrorism efforts. The Rocky Mountain News won two awards for a story and photographic essay about how Marines honor fallen comrades.

I guess I’m surprised that there weren’t more overtly religious stories. Awards are given for stories written in 2005. Terry wrote about the top 10 religious stories for 2005. I see very little overlap between the Pulitzer awards and the Religion Newswriters Association’s list of the year’s biggest stories. What’s more, the Pulitzer list has the same blind spot that Terry noted: the religious dimensions to terrorism.

And that’s probably because the media have done a horrible job of exploring those dimensions. But at least we know all about those scary Roberts children.

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  • Steve

    This kind of propaganda really irks me. Katherine Harris’ mascara was the butt of jokes because of her attacks upon the basic democratic principles on which this country was founded. Even right wing Republicans are abandoning her today. Did you see her Canoodle episode where she openly flirted with a married man in front of the CSPAN camera? Did you hear about her leak about a supposed terrorist plot that was thwarted but that never actually happened? What about her repeated receipt of bribes and illegal campaign donations? What about her violating the First Amendment rights of her own constituents at a town hall meeting where she had all opposition literature confisgated by the police at the door (I was there for that one.)? What about her failing to sign her own absentee ballot or her getting lost (or drunk) during her first weeks in Congress? Oh, yeah, let’s not forget the blocking the voting rights of thousands of African American Florida voters. All this leaves out the obfuscating and interference with the Florida 2000 vote. My vote did not count. I was robbed of a fundamental American right by Katherine Harris. All reports show that if all the votes had been correctly counted, Al Gore would be President today. So, Katherine’s mascara and her strutting her boobs are merely the funny stuff on top of the really incometent and anti-American record she has established for herself. People resort to the mascara jokes because they do not want to deal with the really serious crimes committed by this poor excuse for a lady.

  • Jan Edmiston

    I’m with you. There have been some especially shaky Givhan articles in the past year. And she won a Pulitzer? Nevertheless, Harris seems to be mascara-commentary worthy.

  • Stephen A.

    Mollie, the Pulitzers along with other awards (Nobel, Oscars, etc.) have long ago stopped making sense, if they ever did. Sometimes they recognize excellence, often they just serve a political agenda.

    As for Condi’s Matrix Boots and outfit, I personally wish she’d wear them more often :-)

    To Steve: Thanks for your viscious political rant about Katherine Harris. It’s relevant to religion and religion reporting…HOW, exactly?

    p.s. MOVE ON. 2000 was six years ago.

  • Mollie

    I think the thing is that the Pulitzers don’t just award people, they reward styles, beats and methods of reporting.

    That’s why it would be nice to see an award for good religion reporting. It’s not like they don’t already wade into morals — every journalist who won was dealing with issues of morality, obviously. But I’m not sure how many religion writing candidates we have — of course, in a year when Robin Givhan(!) wins, every religion writer was more generally deserving.

  • dk

    There just needs to be an appropriate award for polemic and satire, which have always been the best use of the press. The Pulitzer can go to the overly earnest “serious” journalists who think they alone support all that is good in the world. We need somethign else to acknowledge the real heroes–Jon Stewart, the Onion, Triumph the Comic Insult Dog, Barbara Walters, etc. Maybe self-satirizing journalists will need a special category…

  • Ted Olsen

    FYI, the Religion Newswriters Association has announced its 2006 contest finalists. The list of 2005 winners is here.

  • Michael

    The fact that you pay attention to her byline shows how effective Givhan is as a journalist. She’s the first fashion critic every to win a Pulitzer, and this in a town where women look like Ann Taylor clones (in tennis shoes) and men with six figure incomes wear Dockers and short-sleeve shirts.

    Her piece on Cynthia McKinney, recently, was an amzing bit of social and political commentary, wrapped in a fashion piece. The stories on the Roberts children was as much about the packaging of families as props as it was about fashion. In a town like Washington, that’s great journalism.

    She crtiques conservatives because they run the Washington show. They hold all the seats of power. To not discuss their impact on the social and fashion scene would be a horrific oversight as a journalist.

  • Mollie

    I guess saying I’m all for fashion criticism wasn’t clear enough. Beauty is its own virtue. We avoid talking about beauty and ugliness as if they don’t matter — they do matter. But they matter aesthetically. They don’t matter in the sense that we can judge whether someone will be a good (fill in the blank) based solely on her ability to apply mascara in the manner that one woman thinks is appropriate.

    Also, it’s not that she writes about Republicans more, it’s that she writes about Republicans in the trademark Washington-Post-bring-us-Dana-Milbank’s-snarkiness kind of way. See her article on Kerry-Edwards-Bush-Cheney.

    I notice her byline in the same way I notice Hendrik Hertzberg’s byline in the New Yorker or Maureen Dowd’s in the New York Times — SO THAT I CAN AVOID THEM. Now I only read them if referenced by others.

    If you think that’s good, great. I tend to think not.

    I also wonder if this style of writing is good for the future of newspapers. I’m not talking about sarcasm — which I obviously employ. I’m just saying the blatant bias, the mean-spiritedness and the feeling of importance. I think that they serve to make readers feel like they are being condescended to rather than informed.

    Finally, I did read the McKinney piece last night and while I still don’t like the tone, I thought it was a good commentary as well. Of course, being written in 2006, that was not part of what she won her Pulitzer for. I think less of the Pulitzers and I think awarding her lessened the value of the awards for her fellow recipients. It’s basically the equivalent of giving Ann Coulter a Pulitzer for criticism. Sure she’s insightful, sure she’s funny at times, and sure her criticism is blistering — but should we reward that tone?

  • Michael

    Criticism is, well, criticism. It looks at both the positive and critical elements of something and places it into a large perspective. Maybe because fashion is personal–I know women who are still smarting over Givhan’s dimissal of D.C. women who wear tennis shoes to commute–we assume there is something personal and biased about it.

    Katherine Harris does make a specific fashion statement with her clothes and makeup, just as the Roberts family does and as Dick Cheney does when he dresses for official events as if he’s going on an ice fishing weekend. Sure it’s personal, because it’s about personal choices. These are people surrounded by handlers and sycophants, yet the make personal decisions about how they appear in public. That seems to be something interesting to comment on.

    Of the pieces she submitted to the Pultizer committee, onily three were about Washington indsiders (Cheney, Rice, and the Roberts family). The rest were about celebrities–if you include Judith Miller and Camilla Bowles as celebrities–or fashion shows.

    I don’t see he as being biased and it’s insulting to compare her to Ann Coulter. But we all look at the news differently.

  • Mollie


    I kind of get the feeling you’re not reading what I’m writing. I DEFEND FASHION CRITICISM REPEATEDLY. I CRITICIZE *GIVHAN’S* FASHION CRITICISM. THERE IS A DIFFERENCE. I’m sure I read more fashion criticism by 9:00 AM than you read all month.

    But are you actually defending the idea that the manner in which a woman applies mascara is a good indicator of whether she can be trusted? This isn’t a question of whether the mascara application can be criticized, it’s a question of whether the mascara application is a good indicator of someone’s moral judgment. Yes, fashion choices reflect broadly on people. But, again, do you honestly believe that the manner in which a woman applies mascara is a good indicator of how she will decide a political issue? No indication of gross bias there? Really? Okay.

    Anyway, I better stop before TMatt reads this thread, sees my blatantly off-topic comments and gives me a stern talking to.

    Back to religious media everybody!

  • Michael

    Isn’t the point that Givhan has breathed new life into the stale world of fashion crticism. She doesn’t fawn over Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors and the Milan fashion shows, but looks at the larger questions about how people dress. Most fashion criticism is incredibly tedious, with everyone trying to pretend to be Anna Wintour. Givhan doesn’t do that.

    I thought the discussion of Katherine Harris was smart and interesting. Politicians do have to worry about how they appear, and a politician who applies makeup like she’s a cocktail waitress (or wears washer-woman braids, as she said about McKinney) is making a very specific statement about how they are perceived and whether they can be taken seriously.

  • tmatt


    I Givhan’s work is labeled as a column, it’s fine. Otherwise, she’s an attack dog in a news feature section. Seh needs some honestly.


    I have no interest in “religious media” and, rarely, does this blog (snark, snark). We are about religION in the major media. So there.

  • Michael

    Should every critic be labelled a column, then, since all are critiquing and criticizing and being “attack dogs”?

    Usually, Givhan’s pieces are clearly labelled as being “fashion” and are in the style section, with the other critics. She’s not on the front page.

  • Julia Duin

    Back to the religion beat, my paper nominated my religion reporting for a Pulitzer for beat coverage. Now all newspapers nominate a flurry of reporters for Pulitzers so don’t be impressed but at least we tried!
    The Pulitzers, like almost all other journalism contests, are tone-deaf on religion reporting. The one exception is the Globe’s Pulitizer for the Catholic sex scandal coverage. There was a religion piece about a Catholic Church – in Newsday, I believe – that won a Pulitzer a few years ago but it was more for its feature writing qualities than for its incisive religion analysis. A true shame: the religion beat is one of the most difficult there is and few recognize it.

  • amm139

    I’m somewhat ambivalent about Givhan, but your characterization of her piece on Cheney in the snowstorm is just flat-out misleading: Yes, she criticized his tone-deaf choice of attire…because he was attending a solemn ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of AUSCHWITZ dressed like Walter Mathau in ‘Grumpy Old Men.’ The other attendees were wearing formal winter coats, etc. for the occasion. But Cheney looked like he was going ice fishing. Photos from that event were broadcast all over Europe, and our VP looked like he couldn’t care less. It was a bad call on Cheney’s part, not one-sided reporting on Givhan’s.

  • Mollie

    Amm, I wonder why the Washington Post ombudsman criticized her for that piece, then.

  • Michael

    Amm, I wonder why the Washington Post ombudsman criticized her for that piece, then.

    Because that’s what ombudsmen do, they express the views of readers and offer critiques. Ombdsmen are also often wrong and much too “safe.” The previous Post Ombudsmen was critical of the grounbreaking WP Style section often and clearly wanted a safer, tamer approach.

  • Michael

    BTW, Getler didn’t criticize the story.

    My view is that the image was fair game for a fashion columnist and that Givhan’s explanation provides a look at how critics bring their critical eye to all kinds of situations in ways that often look harsh to those who disagree or disapprove. I would, however, have voted for a call to the veep’s office to see if there was some special reason for that outfit. When I tried, officials would talk only off the record. My best guess is simply that it was very cold.

    Here’s the whole column.

  • Mollie


    That’s right, it was Howard Kurtz who complained about the coverage. Not that the ombudsman seemed too kind.

    “The whole thing was a bit overplayed, in my view. The guy is a heart patient and it was freezing cold there. Seems to me there are better things to criticize Cheney about.”

    Anyway, it’s good to know that the Coulters and Givhans have their fans. Some things are a matter of taste. I should remember that when I mock them.

  • Michael

    Comparing Coulter to Givhan seems unfair, Mollie. Givhan would never be caught dead with a bad bleach job, a too-short black cocktail dress, and Coulter’s omnipresent cigarette and Chardonnay. :)

  • Mollie

    See, I knew we’d agree on something if we just fought it out long enough! You’re right, Michael!

  • Michael


  • Maureen

    Basically, then, you’re saying that it’s wrong for even men to dress for the weather in modern coldweather gear. Cloth coats are all we’re allowed to muster on any formal occasion, even if we’re in the middle of frozen Poland. Even if we’re men who’ve had heart attacks and would rather not have another.

    Well, they rear people to be smarter than that in the Dakotas.

  • Will

    So if any of that is true, Steve, and Democrats are so “feminist”, and Republicans are so “anti-woman”, why were so many of the attacks on her APPEARANCE?
    Maybe for the same reason lefty homosexuals are so cool and righty homosexuals are so sneer-worthy?